Anne Holton, 17th Secretary of Education of the Commonwealth of Virginia, for The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Virginia’s public schools need more resources to meet students’ needs. Take it from me — I had the honor, as Virginia’s secretary of education from 2014 to 2016 under Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to work with teachers across the state, and I know we can do more to support the high quality instruction our kids deserve. Or take it from Virginians sampled in a recent poll by the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University: an overwhelming 70 percent agreed our schools are underfunded.
Happily, the General Assembly this year has an opportunity to improve funding for public education without raising taxes. Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed that we use enhanced revenues to raise teacher salaries, increase spending for at-risk students, invest in additional school counselors, and make a down payment on repairing aging school buildings. These budget proposals are now pending before Virginia’s Senate and House of Delegates.
Virginia has a long and proud history of supporting public education, going back to the 1860s when our system of free public schools was first adopted. Unfortunately, funding for schools took a nosedive during the recession — in Virginia as across the nation — and has yet to recover.
When I was secretary of education, I was grateful on behalf of our students when McAuliffe and the General Assembly made significant contributions toward restoring public school funding in the budget adopted in 2016. But the hole we are in is deep, and if we want to ensure all our students get a world-class education, we must sustain efforts over the longer term, starting with the investments proposed by our governor this year.
The secret sauce of high quality public education is strong teachers. Unfortunately, Virginia is now facing critical teacher shortages, particularly in certain disciplines such as special education and math, and in the less wealthy schools that serve our neediest students.
Virginia’s Board of Education, on which I sit, recently reported that teachers in Virginia earn 30 percent less than their peers in similarly educated professions. Many teachers work second jobs to make ends meet. Attracting and retaining great teachers has gotten harder all across the state. The number of unfilled positions, as well as the number of less experienced teachers, has increased. This is particularly so in our poorer communities, both urban and rural. While some of our wealthier suburbs are able to supplement low state funding with local resources, this option is not realistic everywhere. The governor’s proposed 5 percent teacher pay raise would go a long way toward telling our teachers we value and appreciate their work.
School counselors are also key to student success. They help make our schools safer, and guide students along the path to college and career success. Our schools have recently taken on new responsibilities to help students explore career options — particularly important in light of 21st century workforce needs. Currently, Virginia mandates only one counselor per 450 students, a woefully inadequate ratio that the Virginia Board of Education has long recommended reducing to the national best practice of one per 250 students. The governor’s budget proposals include funds to phase in this change, over three years.
Finally, we need to do more to close our persistent achievement gaps. In Virginia’s less-wealthy communities, both urban and rural, school divisions serve students who have greater needs, but they are working to meet those needs with 89 cents on the dollar compared to wealthier divisions. They have less-experienced instructors and less access to advanced placement and other high-level courses. Not surprisingly, these divisions consistently perform less well on standardized measures of school success. The proposed additional spending for at-risk students will help address this, as will the school buildingfunds, since the biggest infrastructure needs are in these same less-wealthy communities.
Research shows that school spending is directly correlated to student success. Obviously, funds need to be spent well, but that’s not possible if the money isn’t there. Every child deserves a chance at academic and life success. Virginians understand this. Here’s hoping the General Assembly does too.